The Pilgrim’s Progress

The Pilgrim’s Progress


John Bunyan

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The Pilgrim’s Progress Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Bunyan's The Pilgrim’s Progress. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Bunyan

John Bunyan was born into a working-class family and was not highly educated. He described himself as having been a rebellious child who particularly enjoyed swearing. At 16, Bunyan joined Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army to fight in the English Civil War. A narrow escape from death caused Bunyan to begin shedding his rebelliousness. After marrying a pious young woman, Bunyan increasingly mourned for his sins. Under the influence of a local nonconformist preacher (who rejected the established Church of England) and his reading of Martin Luther’s works, Bunyan eventually had a profound conversion experience. Within a few years, he had become a popular preacher in his own right and to publish religious writings. In 1660, however, he was thrown in jail for preaching without the king’s permission. He remained in jail for over 12 years (despite never being formally charged or sentenced), spending his time writing and earning a modest income for his family by making shoelaces. Occasionally, sympathetic jailers released him briefly to preach to Baptist audiences in Bedfordshire. He said that he would remain imprisoned “even till the moss shall grow upon my eyebrows, rather than violate my faith and principles.” He began work on Pilgrim’s Progress, by far his most famous book, during his imprisonment. After another spell of imprisonment in the 1670s, Bunyan spent his last years writing and ministering; he published nearly 60 works during his lifetime. He died suddenly of a fever while traveling, at age 59.
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Historical Context of The Pilgrim’s Progress

Puritanism was a reforming movement within the 17th-century Anglican Church, or Church of England. Puritan theologians sought to “purify” Anglicanism from what they saw as unbiblical practices and doctrines that retained too much Roman Catholic influence. Though Puritanism has a rather dour reputation in the United States, in England the focus of Puritan preaching and literature was on a warm-hearted, practical faith and the gradual transformation of a Christian’s life in response to God’s grace. Puritan theology was influential in Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Baptist churches, on both scholarly and popular levels; along with Bunyan, some famous 17th-century Puritan authors included Richard Baxter, John Owen, and John Flavel. In 1660, when the Stuart monarchy was restored in England, religious toleration was curtailed. Later that year, Bunyan was arrested under the Conventicle Act of 1593, which forbade religious gatherings outside of one’s local (Anglican) parish church. During the Stuart king Charles II’s reign, an Act of Uniformity was passed (requiring Anglican ordination for preachers), as well as another Conventical Act of 1664, which further cracked down on dissenting, or nonconformist, religious gatherings. Under these acts, many nonconforming clergy were arrested, and many left their churches and preached in open countryside in order to avoid persecution, their congregations following them.

Other Books Related to The Pilgrim’s Progress

The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, a vastly popular 1611 English translation, is undoubtedly the greatest literary influence on John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress—nearly every page of the novel is marked by direct quotations or allusions to the KJV, which its original audience would have recognized. Arguably the best-known work of Christian allegorical fiction is Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), written in the 1300s in Italy; it traces Dante’s dream-journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. In contrast, the action of Pilgrim’s Progress takes place in an ordinary Christian’s life and doesn’t focus on the content of the afterlife, reflecting Bunyan’s Protestant differences from medieval Catholic views. However, like the Divine Comedy, Pilgrim’s Progress is a dream that recounts a Christian’s journey to finding salvation. Another medieval religious allegory, William Langland’s Piers Plowman, provides a closer analogue to Pilgrim’s Progress in its English origins, use of a long list of characters with allegorical names, and great popularity in its day. A more modern Christian allegory is C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series (including The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe), which allegorizes Christian themes for children. Among his many other writings, Bunyan himself also wrote a spiritual autobiography titled Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.
Key Facts about The Pilgrim’s Progress
  • Full Title: The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come
  • When Written: 1670s, during Bunyan’s imprisonment; First Part completed in 1677, Second Part in 1684
  • Where Written: Bedfordshire, England
  • When Published: 1678 (First Part), 1684 (Second Part)
  • Literary Period: Restoration period
  • Genre: Fiction, Religious Allegorical Fiction
  • Setting: An allegorical landscape loosely based on 17th-century England, concluding in the Celestial City, or Heaven.
  • Climax: Christian crosses the River of Death and enters the Celestial City.
  • Antagonist: Sin, the world, death, and the devil
  • Point of View: First person omniscient

Extra Credit for The Pilgrim’s Progress

Pilgrim’s Popularity. Pilgrim’s Progress is one of history’s best-selling books and has never been out of print. It has been published in more than 200 languages (including Dutch, French, and Welsh during Bunyan’s lifetime) and at least 1,500 editions.

Allegorical Impact. Pilgrim’s Progress has influenced many other literary works. The title of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is an allusion to the location in Christian’s journey, and in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the March sisters read the book and refer to its characters and plot. C. S. Lewis’s first published work of fiction, Pilgrim’s Regress, chronicles his own conversion to Christianity in an early 20th-century allegorical setting.